Feeling Together: “A Day at Stateville”
By Anya Hamrick-Nevinglovskaya, EJP Instructor
May 30, 2014
On the evening of Friday, May 9th, 2014, I had the privilege and pleasure of attending the play “A Day at Stateville,” performed at the Unitarian Universalist church of Urbana-Champaign. “A Day” is written by inmates who are serving natural or virtual life sentences at the Illinois Stateville Correctional Center, and it is performed by former long-term inmates of the same facility. The event was organized as part of the “Changing Minds” campaign, which is a statewide effort to educate citizens about the House Bill 3668 (also known simply as “the Bill”), as well as the challenges faced by the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) in general. HB 3668 would allow people who are at least fifty years old and have been incarcerated in an Illinois prison for twenty five years or more to apply for sentence modification. “A Day” was locally sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Church of Urbana-Champaign, U-C Friends Meeting, Education Justice Project, C-U Citizens for Peace and Justice, Channing-Murray Foundation, First Mennonite Church, and Central Illinois Jobs with Justice.
As soon as I walked into the building, I joined a rather long line of those that have arrived to see the performance. After checking in, we were given a couple of leaflets that included information about the Bill as well as general statistics and facts about inmate lives in IDOC. When I walked into the main room, I was struck by how full and charged with energy it was. Indeed, it was difficult to find a free seat that was relatively close to the stage and eventually, from what I understand, to get one’s hands on the information leaflets. The attendance for this event was anticipated to be around 40 people, but, amazingly, about 110 showed up instead!
As the five performers settled into their chairs and introduced themselves, the room eventually went quiet. The journey began. The narrator invited us to follow her and “the inmates” into their world on a typical day in Stateville. The play’s narrative technique would have reminded lovers of Russian literature of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s famous novella A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, in which the author (a former inmate himself) takes his readers on a journey through a typical prisoner’s day in one of the Soviet GULAG prisons.
In the course of the performance, we meet and listen to the interactions of two main characters in “A Day at Stateville”: a newly arrived prisoner and his older cellmate who had been incarcerated there for many years. We are there at their first introduction and at the younger prisoner’s initial settling in; we listen to the inmates discuss their health concerns, their issues with the dining hall and food. The language seems casual and authentic and, although the performers are not professional actors (in their own disclaimer), their emotions and sincerity speak to me in a way that the information leaflets simply cannot. Yes, I knew that Illinois corrections facilities were originally built for 34,000 people, but are now straining with the population close to 50,000. However, witnessing a freshly arrived inmate’s amazement at the size of the cell and his older cellmate’s explanation that it was originally meant for one person, speaks to me on an emotional, not intellectual level. I knew that the corrections facilities were notoriously understaffed and often provided poor medical care. Listening to an inmate talk about a mysterious abdominal pain that he has been experiencing for months and that he cannot get someone to look at, hearing him mention that one of his family members died of abdominal cancer, speaks to me on a very basic, human level. I feel fear, anger, helplessness, disbelief.
In addition to over-crowding and lack of adequate medial care, we are exposed to many other concerns. The inmates discuss the poor quality of the food and wonder at its potential effects on long-term health. They wish that the older inmates who had been incarcerated for a longer time and had experienced personal growth would not often be separated from the younger, more newly arrived inmates; the older inmates, they feel, could share their experiences of growth with the younger prisoners and help them stay out of trouble. The inmates discuss the dearth or absence of educational programming, spending on average 22 hours a day in their cells, the lack of air conditioning and the stifling heat during summers, the full lock downs that can last as long as a couple of months, among other issues. During these discussions, my senses are fully engaged: I imagine what the described food tastes like; I imagine the heat; I catch a glimpse of the claustrophobia and the hopelessness in the face of many years to come. Throughout the performance, emotional engagement with the actors – both as themselves, with their own incarceration stories, and as the characters they portray – is the most powerful part of the event for me. Empathy is centerstage, and I think this is the most important part of what “A Day” is doing. Facts and information can explain, convince, persuade on an intellectual level. Once we engage with the prisoner on a shared human level and connect emotionally, somehow, it seems more powerful and harder to overlook, to turn away.
When the performance ended, it was followed by a Q&A session, during which the audience members were able to ask questions and the performers shared more of their personal experiences. Aside from the emotional impact of the performance itself, the most powerful part of the event as a whole for me was its final fifteen (or so) minutes. Urbana-Champaign organizations involved with issues of criminal justice and prison reform had a chance to introduce themselves and briefly report on their activities. These organizations were: Citizens with Conviction, C-U Citizens for Peace and Justice, No More Jails Campaign, Community Courtwatch, C-U Immigration Forum, Education Justice Project, Prison Justice Project, Books 2 Prisoners, Watchdog Committee for the County Board Jail issue, Library at the County Jail, Reading Reduces Recidivism, and Residential Re-entry Program (in concept stage). I think this was a particularly successful way to wrap up the performance. After hearing about the overwhelming challenges facing both IDOC and the inmates themselves, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed with the numerous tasks at hand.
Hearing about all the excellent grassroots work that is done in our community and the wonderful resources that are available for those that are interested in getting involved left me feeling somewhat hopeful and inspired. I hope others felt the same way, as these challenges are particularly pressing now: Illinois is close to facing the same Court-monitored regulation that has been imposed on the California prison system due to a large population and inadequate medical care, whereas the prejudices against people with criminal records have been shockingly highlighted by the recent failure to renew James Kilgore’s contract with the University of Illinois. The passing of the Bill would serve as an important first step in rallying support for further comprehensive reforms.